I wanted to wait to write this post until after the FA Cup semifinal. I was willing to scrap this entire piece had Wolverhampton Wanderers won the semifinal against Watford and progressed to the May 18th final against Manchester City. Because I wanted a better chance to be heard.
The Wolves story of 2018-19 is one of legitimate magic. There is glory here and there is certainly inspiration for those watching and following. The season Wolves are in the midst of is nothing short of extraordinary and despite the recent late heartbreak that sent them packing from the Cup, it is one that will be remembered amongst the numerous trophy clasping ones of yore.
Had Wolves gone to the final and maybe even beaten City eventually, the takes I’m going to have would seem too obvious and anybody with a pen would have their opinion and high praise. Manager Nuno Espírito Santo would have been linked with every coaching availability in the world. And the stars comprising this machine would have been sold off (which may happen anyway). My point is that this Wolves team needs to be revered trophy and 7th place or not.
Now listen, let’s not sit on our sofa cushions and chin wag about how Nuno is some sort of deity. He isn’t. He wasn’t some mythical goalkeeper and didn’t even have that effective of a playing career. Yes, he has a Champions League winners’ medal with José Mourinho’s Porto in 2004. No, he didn’t start. In fact he didn’t do much starting at all as he remained a backup at all the relevant clubs he donned the kit for. But maybe all that time on the bench gave him the best seat in the house to learn. Maybe he accepted his role as a perpetual backup and used that to study his managers pacing the sidelines in front of him and learn the ropes for himself. That certainly would explain why he seems to have the nuances of the game down pat.
Nuno joined Wolves in 2017. After his first season in charge, they were champions. And headed straight to the big lad dance of the Premier League. In their first season as a newly promoted side in the Premier League? Wolves aren’t merely surviving. They are fucking thriving.
It is truly difficult to properly wrap one’s head around the fact that a Championship team (albeit the champions) went straight into the richest and most arduous league in football and started playing their own game and winning big matches. Just check out what Fulham are doing if you’re struggling to capture the context. Watching Wolves work is a joyous experience. They string passes together. They methodically compose an attack. They play with verve and a chemistry that has seen them propel up the table. They have mettle. And they’ve sculpted stars the whole world now has their eye on.
Wolves aren’t nobodies. Let me be crystal clear about that. They have history. They are well followed and know a thing or two about hoisting some cups. As a Manchester United fan, our stories actually are quite intertwined. In a span from 1952-1959, six league titles were shared amongst United and Wolves. And it was Wolves who strode away from United to the title in 1958 mere months after the Munich Air Disaster of February 6th killed most of the Manchester reds (the fact that United were somehow still competitive is another wonderful story for another time). In 1960, Wolves would almost win the Double after securing their fourth FA Cup title and finishing as league runners up to Burnley. They played winning football back then. They had their legends (the icon Billy Wright and Bill Slater to name two) and they won pots. Fast forward to present day and we are looking at the best Wolves team since those heady days of 59 years ago.
And the trick to what we are seeing today is that Wolves didn’t just throw themselves in the market after getting that first monstrous check from the Premier League. Wolves kept the Championship victors mostly in tact. The bonds they had built during that campaign and prior years leading up to that success have vividly aided their on the pitch unity. These players are fighting for each other. Wolves play with proper heart (again, contrast their strategy with Fulham’s and the divergent results each side has earned). And the players they did pick up in the summer window are shining. Raúl Jiménez was loaned to Wolves from Benfica (they recently bought him outright for an eye watering £30m) and he is an absolute force. He is big and strong and can finish. He can play with his back to the goal, but more importantly, he can FINISH. And at 27, he is firmly in his prime years.
The triumphs Jiménez is finding assists the players around him in finding their own form. It is easier to play knowing you have a reliable goal scorer leading the line. Jiménez shouldering the pressure has allowed Diogo Jota to flourish. Jota is young at 22 and still at times raw. He’s fast and skilled on the ball. He, too, can finish. Trust me when I tell you, this is just the beginning for the Portuguese attacker. Jota isn’t scared or daunted by the names he’s facing. He just plays. And the fact that he hails from Portugal, which is a common theme to this Wolves side, has him settling in to the rigors of the top division quicker than usual.
Nuno has used his Portuguese roots to perfection. Besides Jota, the manager and his staff are cultivating a midfield dynamo in 22 year old Rúben Neves. Neves is a rock in the middle of the park doing the dirty work but is also no stranger to working the ball forward and getting in on the attack (10 goals in two seasons for Wolves). He is genuinely special. He can pull strings and dictate the flow of a game. A proper #8. The players who can do that at an elite level are few and far between. Neves may be one of the next extraordinary ones.
And that’s not all, Wolves even have some Portuguese older heads. Also in midfield is João Moutinho. A 32 year old Euro 2016 winner with Portugal and a man who has played for the likes of Monaco when Monaco won leagues and shone with a fair few players you now have heard of: Danijel Subašić, Benjamin Mendy, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Thomas Lemar, Bernardo Silva, Fabinho, Kylian Mbappé and more. Moutinho adds steel and class to the midfield, which is certainly necessary when going up against the bigger and scarier clubs. He is adaptable and can play deeper or further forward. And to finish it off, Nuno brought in Portugal #1 Rui Patrício to man the net. Patrício is an excellent keeper who, after 12 years and trophies with Sporting Clube de Portugal, is showing no signs of slowing down. He brings that ‘been there done that’ tranquility one wants at the back. The nous. The vital experience.
And it keeps going. Front to back this is a real team. Players are emerging into prominence. Club captain Conor Coady is a surefire wall in the heart of defence. He has a no nonsense aura to him and plays confidently, consistently and without fear. Entering his prime years as a new 26 year old, his name is even being thrown around as a possible option for Gareth Southgate’s England (for what it’s worth, I would have John Stones, Harry Maguire, Michael Keane, James Tarkowski and Chris Smalling – who laughably will never get picked – ahead of him).
Coady is flanked by the versatile Jonny Otto who is emphatically coming into his own. Jonny can play on either side as a full back or wing back. This man is skilled and can push the ball going forward. Initially signed on loan from Atlético Madrid, Jonny is now a permanent player on the books at Wolves (at a snip too for £15m). He has his best years ahead of him and is now even breaking into the ranks of Spain, albeit behind in status to César Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba. On the other flank to Jonny is Matt Doherty. A stalwart, who too can play as either full back and wing back (Nuno oftentimes plays with a back 3), Doherty even chips in with a few goals now and again. He is reliable and has been at the club since 2010. A true servant, Doherty, like many of these current men on Wolves, has recently been called up on the international stage as well where he represents the Republic of Ireland.
I could go on. There’s just such a great level of balance to this Wolves squad. Watching them click and work together with a high degree of panache and pomp is quite refreshing.
The FA Cup exit was heartbreaking. Wolves held a 2-0 lead in the second half only to see Watford equalize in stoppage time. And then win it in extra time. It was a magnificently classic match and for a neutral, a pleasure. Wolves didn’t let Watford play for 70 full minutes. It seemed effortless. And then the wheels came off. It wasn’t necessarily a collapse as this Watford side is also quite spectacular to watch. Javi Gracia, who along with Nuno should be the only two contenders for Manager of the Year, has Watford playing such slick and composed and purposeful football. They were worthy winners at the end of the day but that blemish does not take away from what Wolves are in the process of doing.
Yes, getting so close to a Wembley final for this storied club will hurt for some time. It is a blow. But the team needs to use this disappointment as a push for the run-in as they attempt to finish as the “best of the rest” in 7th. Semifinalists and 7th would be a monumental achievement in their first season back in the top division. But it will be a dogfight with just a month or so to go. The teams around them are finding form. You already know about Watford. Then there’s Leicester City who are playing some legitimately tough to beat football under newly hired Brendan Rodgers. After four wins on the bounce, the Foxes are trying to make a statement that they are still a major factor in the league. And then there’s Everton. A team that should really be walking 7th but can’t find that right level of consistency. The Toffees late on are turning Goodison Park into a bit of a fortress now though and just dismissed Arsenal there whilst playing some of their best stuff in a few years (they also beat Chelsea and drew with Liverpool in a very effective last four to five weeks). So Wolves have their work cut out for them, but I can see them doing it.
Wolves have already beaten many top 6 teams. They’ve beaten Manchester United twice this season (once in the FA Cup quarterfinal) and drawn the other match. They’ve beaten Tottenham, Liverpool (in the FA Cup) and Chelsea (drew the other match). They’ve drawn with Arsenal and Manchester City. But now they have to use the intensity they have against the more massive clubs and not drop wasteful points against teams lower down the table (they lost twice against bottom club Huddersfield, and shipped key points against Cardiff City, Fulham, Burnley, Brighton, Newcastle United and Crystal Palace). They are too good for that. And their place in the league when this season calls it a day is how Nuno and these players will be judged.
There’s too much quality in this Wolves side to wilt. Not just in the latter stages of this term but even for next season and going forward. They should be dreaming of the top 6. They should be believing they can get into and distinctly impact the Europa League. And that will come down to the market this off season. Nuno and the Board will have to expertly balance the need for fresh and acutely talented blood with the necessity of maintaining the purring chemistry and generally upbeat air of this crop. It’s working currently but the goals are larger now. Everyone is a victim of their own success and Wolves are no different. More is expected now that the club has demonstrated what it is capable of.
That’s the constant challenge of this league. To always improve amongst a group of teams always improving. For Wolves fans, they can rest easy knowing that Nuno and the boys will gladly accept that challenge. Enjoy this team. They can go even farther.